Isolation horror movies are a special breed of horror in which the protagonist is typically separated from their usual social contexts, either forcibly or due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control—such as a natural disaster. Whether they’re buried alive, stuck in an elevator, trapped in a cave, or unaware that they’re actually dead, peak isolation horror occurs when the physical space around you no longer feels safe.
The realities and challenges of the pandemic brought isolation into new and increasingly relatable—and personal—territory. Due to varying levels of lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing measures, collectively we have a much more intimate understanding of what it’s like to be isolated now more than ever. As such, isolation horror has gone from subgenre and a niche of sorts to something timely and painfully relevant.
We dug deep and found some of the best isolation horror movies the genre has to offer.
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There’s something to be said about the claustrophobic atmosphere of a film with an extremely limited setting. In the case of the 2021 film Oxygen, we’re talking a cryogenic unit—not unlike a coffin—in which the mysterious protagonist (a woman without any memory of how she got there) struggles to make sense of her enclosed surroundings. The woman wakes up in that coffin-like cryogenic unit as its life support capacity is failing rapidly. The oxygen levels are quickly diminishing, creating a ticking clock for her limited investigation. There’s really nothing more isolating than waking up in a restricted cryogenic coffin floating through space, seemingly abandoned by life itself. And that’s really just the beginning. Oxygen throws viewers a few well-warranted twists and turns, eventually leading to a climax and conclusion that few will see coming.
Could you imagine being the only person in your friend group aware of the decimation to follow? In Blindness—an adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by Jose Saramago—we are catapulted into a world in which everyone suddenly loses their sight, causing the downfall of society. However, our protagonist, described as “the doctor’s wife” and played by Julianne Moore, is perhaps the only one who can still see. She pretends to be as blind as the others for fear of what it might become of those who maintain their sight. She uses her vision to help a small group of survivors through an increasingly horrific apocalyptic wasteland full of human terrors—not the least of which include destruction and abuse. The most isolating part of the film isn’t that its lead characters remain apart from society; it’s that society devolves into a toxic group of destructive menaces without a care but to destroy and exploit others.
The 2001 film The Others is one of those films that could easily be lost among other potential frights. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Stewart, a protective and outwardly paranoid mother of two children who suffer from a disability that leaves them susceptible to direct sunlight. That might sound like a variation of vampirism, but it is actually far more complex than anything you might initially suspect. Grace works tirelessly to keep her vulnerable children away from the sunlight, while the world outside finds ways to invade. The worst arrives by way of her own children talking about potential “others”—which may or may not be ghosts, haunting their quiet sprawling home. These “others” soon reveal themselves as a potential family, including bump-in-the-night footsteps and other commotion. The Others was a bit of a sleeper hit in the early 2000s and has since become, like the film itself, a quiet and fading story that deserves your attention; you simply need to stop and read the room.
The Belko Experiment
Initially an unassuming film, The Belko Experiment introduces viewers to a group of 80 Americans working abroad for the eponymously named Belko Industries in Bogota, Columbia. Things appear benign enough until they arrive for work one day and are condemned—effectively locked inside a building without prior warning, a disembodied voice declaring the employees must begin killing each other. Soon the employees are given quotas and directives, such as requiring that 30 must be sifted out within two hours—or twice as many will be killed. The Belko Experiment turns humanity on its side, offering an expert sociological eye to mass hysteria. Even among a crowd, one can still feel utterly isolated and alone.
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I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Almost everyone can relate to the somber experience of being housebound, either sick or taking care of a loved one with an illness—even more so since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2016 film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House captures the doldrums of caregiving while also peeling back a layer of safety which is often taken for granted in a place thought to be home. Iris Blum is a retired horror writer suffering from dementia; Lily Saylor is hired by Iris’s manager to be her caregiver. Iris refers to Lily as “Polly,” who happens to be the name of the protagonist of Iris’s most popular novel, The Lady in the Walls. Lily digs into Iris’s factual and fictional past and soon discovers that the house may be haunted by more than mere ghosts. Similarly to The Others, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is an expertly haunting tale that taps into familiar domestic isolations.
10 Cloverfield Lane
A spiritual entry in J.J. Abrams’ ongoing Cloverfield universe, 10 Cloverfield Lane has essentially nothing at all to do with huge gaijin style monsters and more to do with the monster within. Michelle and her boyfriend Ben get into a car accident and wake up in a fallout bunker owned by a man named Howard, whose behavior wafts between caring and borderline chaotic. Howard claims that something sinister is happening above and they should wait things out in the bunker. Every chance Michelle gets, she tries to push the limits, the isolation and closed quarters of the bunker wearing away on her and the others’ sanity. Howard begins to exhibit a very peculiar kind of monstrosity, which is the very thing that might make a person question a stranger. 10 Cloverfield Lane successfully blurs together feelings of isolation with anxiety due to extreme lack of personal space.
We Need to Do Something
2021’s We Need to Do Something is a psychological horror film based on a series of unassuming events. A town cowers against the onset of a national disaster: a tornado barreling down on them. A family, following standard tornado safety protocol, hunkers down in a bathroom; they soon become trapped due to storm debris and a fallen tree that prevent any means of escape. Within the confines of the small space, they battle each other—and their own sanity—as they try to make sense of what happened, as well as what might be going on outside. And that’s when things take a turn for the absurd.
Based on the novella of the same name by Max Booth III, We Need to Do Something achieves where so many isolation horror narratives fail: it remains in a single physical location while managing to simultaneously tell a story that traverses miles of psychological territory in the process. It’s a must-watch for anyone curious about the future of isolation horror.
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Featured image from "I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House" via Netflix.